Books make the best gifts

Okay, so maybe books don’t make the best gifts. I’ll admit that I’d rather be given a Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ over a Stephen King book. One exception to that if the Stephen King book was a first edition signed copy. If my “Secret Santa” was looking to gift me one of those phones, then make sure it’s able to be on the Sprint network. Just saying. Now onto this week’s rant.

There are many reasons why books make the perfect gift. Here are some reasons why:

1. Books are easily transportable. You can’t take a 72-inch flat screen television with you to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and watch as you wait in line to renew your driver’s license. You also can’t take a Playstation 4 with you to a government meeting and play the new Star Wars game a few minutes before the meeting convenes. I’ve tried. You just end up with council members giving you weird looks as you try to plug an HDMI cable into the monitors. Books can be taken with you wherever you go. It doesn’t matter where you go: churches, meetings, the BMV, even the bathroom. All of those places and more, a book can be taken with you. Last detail about that: if you’re borrowing a book from the library or a friend, don’t take it into the bathroom. That’s common courtesy.

2. Books are cheap. If you’re like me, a writer, you can’t really afford to spend a bunch of money on Christmas presents. I mean, you could spend rent and bill money to buy that perfect, albeit expensive, gift for your loved one. You might be asking them for a place to stay while you catch up on bills, but whatever. Books are the perfect alternative. You don’t have to drop $400 dollars on a book unless it’s a signed first edition of Stephen King.

3. Books are personalized. Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction, etc. Everyone has a preference when it comes to works of fiction. Or non-fiction. Choosing the perfect book for that person tells you that you know them enough to know what types of books they like to enjoy. Televisions aren’t personal like a book can be. Just make sure you take in deciding which book is right.

4. Books require no assembly. Unless you buy a book from Ikea, you don’t need to assemble anything the night before Christmas. Plus, they need no batteries. I can’t tell you the money I’ve spent buying batteries for gifts that didn’t include them.

5. Books make the perfect re-gift. When you’re finished reading a book, you can pass them on as a White Elephant book. If you’re like me, you wear a book out in the first reading. I typically crack a spine of a book more than I crack my own. If it’s a hardback, then maybe that’d be an okay book as a regular gift. However, if you bend the edges of the pages like I do, then maybe consider buying a newer version.

6. Books don’t hurt as much as other things. Have you ever stepped on a bunch of Legos? Have you ever banged your head on a television? Stepping on the edge of a book, a pointy hardcover, is a pretty difficult thing to do. I don’t think I’ve ever done that.
Literature is something that I’ve tried to purchase for my friends and relatives for birthdays and Christmas gifts. Personally, I like hunting for the right book. Sure, it may take time but that’s what makes gifts so enjoyable. Remember that old saying, “It’s the thought that counts?” Books personify that sentiment.

Happy hunting and merry Christmas!

If You’ve Never Watched Horror

So, I have a lot of people tell me that they don’t like watching Horror films because they have too much violence/gore/swearing/jump scares/takes place in Michigan or some variety of other reasons. Or maybe you have a rule about not watching films that are Rated R. Since it’s Halloween soon, this rant I’ll be listing my top five Horror film picks for people that don’t watch a lot of the genre.

1. Psycho (1960) directed by prolific Auteur Alfred Hitchcock. Basic premise: Woman decides to embezzle money from employer and during her escape she finds refuge in a motel ran by a psycho with a mother obsession. And yes, it’s Rated R but hear me out. Back in the ‘60’s this was considered R, but in today’s standards, it’s PG-13. Hardly any violence or gore (Hitchcock used chocolate syrup as blood since it was filmed in black and white), one profanity and that’s the “OMG” phrase, and the only nudity was a silhouette of Janet Leigh in the famous shower scene. Having sad this, Hitchcock was a master at building suspense and crafting deeply disturbing narratives.

2. Insidious (2010) directed by James Wan is bordering on what I’m including on this list. Basic premise: family moves into a new house and are plagued by evil spirits and soon realize that a demon has trapped their son. So, it’s rated PG-13 and includes a single use of the “F” word. There’s a bunch of other mild obscenities. The violence in this film is very little, but there are multiple jump scares. No sexual content which is a plus. What might deter some people from watching this is the intense demonic entity that threatens the family.

3. The Sixth Sense (1999) directed by M. Night Shyamalan is another film that borders what I’m comfortable suggesting to you all. However, it’s such a great PG-13 rated film, I have to include it on this list. Basic premise: kid sees dead people and a psychologist tries to help the kid. Mild profanity, moderate frightening and intense scenes, mild sexual content, but moderate violence and gore are in this film. The ghosts appear how they looked at time of death, so some scenes are pretty grisly looking. However, if you’re wanting to watch a ghost film, this one is a must see.

4. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) directed by Scott Derrickson. Try finding a decent exorcist film that isn’t Rated R and you have this film here. Basic premise: A lawyer that doesn’t believe in good and evil takes on a negligent homicide case centered on an exorcism. The lawyer begins to question whether or not good and evil exists. This film is unique because it focuses on the exorcism after the fact from the lawyer’s point of view as she tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to Emily Rose. There are a handful (maybe two handfuls) of curse words, moderate violence, and really no sexual content. It’s the perfect film for someone wanting to dip their toes in an exorcism movie.

5. Beetlejuice (1988) directed by Tim Burton is one of those films that you watched when you were younger, but when you watch it with your kids you wonder “Why did my parents allow me to watch that?” It’s Rated PG, but in reality, it should be Rated PG-13. In fact, the entry above is tamer than this one and that was about a demonic possession. Basic premise: Homeowners die and haunt their house. They seek help from the “ghost with the most” when new homeowners move in. It’s a great scary/funny film, but I’d suggest watching it first before letting your kids watch it.

With all that being said, I really thought that finding five films that weren’t all that gory and graphic wouldn’t have been so hard. I’m sure there are a plethora of other films that would make this list, but I either never came across them or I’ve forgotten about them. Hopefully you all have/had (depending on when you read this) a Happy Halloween! Wishing you all a treat filled and no trick night. Dress up as something and eat some candy because dressing up as a character from your favorite movie/book/show/video game only comes once a year. Right? Oh wait, that’s what cosplayers do every day.

If I survive the night, I’ll talk to you all later.

Happily ever after…

Guilty pleasures. We all have them, even if we don’t want to admit it. I mean, that’s sort of the point of guilty pleasures. One of mine is watching movies with really sad endings. Like, if you don’t tear up during the film then don’t bother making me watch it. Then, as part of the guilty pleasure, I make other people watch them with me. Spoiler warning for some films I discuss today. Here are a few of my “go-to” guilty pleasure films:

  1. Me Before You (2016)
  2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
  3. A Quiet Place (2018)
  4. Road to Perdition (2002)
  5. Avengers Infinity War (2018)

I know, I’m sadistic.

Before writing this, I started thinking about why I take pleasure in this odd activity. One reason is that I have no soul and can’t gauge emotions, so I want to watch other people when they’re sad in order to copy their emotions. Another reason I came up with is that I’m so depressed that I like to watch fictional characters in pain, this way I take solace that my life isn’t as messed up as theirs.

Maybe I just like realistic storytelling in my films and novels.

That’s right. Sometimes we don’t all live happily ever after. Sometimes the guy doesn’t get the girl in the end. Maybe the father dies at the end in order to save his boy’s eternal soul. Maybe everybody dies at the end of a zombie movie. Maybe the coach mercy kills the paralyzed athlete. Maybe, the bad guy wins and destroys 50 percent of all life in the universe.

Did I just spoil a bunch of films for you? Well too bad! Sometimes we have movie endings spoiled for us. Maybe you should have gone and watched them. Maybe… just maybe… we overuse the word “maybe.”

Now, know what you’re all saying. “But Jimmy, why would I want to go to the theater and watch a film with a sad ending?”

I completely understand. Look at the current “Infinity Saga” that Marvel just pumped out. Starting with Iron Man (2008) until Avengers: Endgame (2019), the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has produced 22 films. How many of those ended with a happy ending? Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

Again, I know what you’re saying. “But Jimmy, in Avengers: Infinity War half of all life was dusted. How is that a happy ending?” To answer that, I’d argue that Thanos the Mad Titan was the protagonist and the Avengers were the “bad guys” of the film. With Thanos completing his task, he achieved his happy ending.

Every MCU film is predictable. You know going into the film that the hero will win, the bad guys will lose, and that everything will be alright. It’s boring. Don’t get me wrong, I love each and every one of those films, but that’s why I have my guilty pleasures. For once, I’d like to see a hero fail at the end of an origin film. That would give the hero an excellent redemption arc in the second and third film. Why don’t they do it? Two words: Box Office. If the film doesn’t do well, then there might not be a second film. You have to perform well in the first film. Meaning a happy ending where the hero wins the day.
You know, the more I think about it, the first film is like a presidential term. If the first one doesn’t do well, there won’t be a second one.

Films that end happily are also a lie. Do you want to know the biggest lie in cinema? Here it is: “And they all lived happily ever after.” It trains children, and depressed adult male writers, that if they try hard and do all they can to overcome their obstacles then they’ll triumph in the end and live “happily ever after.”

Horror movies aren’t even exempt. In the film Dawn of the Dead (1978), the main characters are evacuating from the mall as it’s being overran by zombies. Two of the characters die and turn into the undead while the very pregnant woman gets into a helicopter. Because in the 70’s aircraft births were the thing. The last guy was locked in his room with a gun to his head. He was waiting until the zombies burst in before killing himself, because that makes a difference. At this point, I’m waiting for the film to end darkly. Then, for some reason, the guy has a change of heart. A song that’s reminiscent of the theme to The A-Team plays and the guy fights his way through the horde of the undead to board the helicopter. Together, they take off riding into the sunlight. Happily Ever After.

Again, I know what you’re going to say: “But Jimmy, these are fictional scenarios that’ll never happen. And you’re saying they need to be realistic?”

Here’s my conclusion (tip to all essay writers: never write that as your last paragraph. It’s tacky). Every story needs to have some realism to it. I’m not saying that every ending to every story has to be sad, depressing, or soul crushing. It’s my belief that even in defeat, lessons can be learned. Movies should have more endings where the hero ultimately loses but learns something valuable from the defeat.

Now, as to my mental health, I’m sure you’re all concerned. Because, if I’m being honest with you last week’s rant and this one was depressing. Don’t worry about me.

I’m sure I’ll live happily ever after.

Story and Plot, part two

In last week’s MtC (that’s the working abbreviation for Mastering the Craft, just trying it out), I talked about the interwoven relationship between story and plot and how you can’t have one without the other. Sorta like that theme song to Married with Children. It isn’t absolutely required that you read last week’s MtC, but if you wanted to boost my self-esteem then go right ahead. Don’t worry I’ll wait for everyone to catch up… you good? Great, onto part two.

So now that you know that story is everything the reader needs to know and the plot is the portion of the story that the writer presents to the reader, let’s talk about what exactly goes into the two narrative elements.

Let’s say I get arrested by the police. Let’s say it was for attempted murder. And, just for the sake of fun, let’s call the victim Mr. Language. His first name’s English. They put me in the interrogation room and a detective says, “tell me where you were on the night of the murder of English Language.”

The initial response would be to tell the detectives everything I’d done that day from beginning to end. That would be my story of what happened. Which is exactly what “story” is, it’s what happens from beginning to end.

Janet Burroway, in her book Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, states that “a story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order.” It makes sense, right? In the case of the story I told the detective, I stated the events from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed, beginning to end.

Any fiction movie, television show, book has a story. Remember from last week that Burroway defined story as “everything the reader needs to know to make coherent sense of the plot.” Note the phrase “coherent sense.” What exactly does that mean? In the case of my story to the detective, they wouldn’t want to know that I brushed my teeth with a baking soda toothpaste or that I ordered my pizza without onions because I hated the texture of the vegetables. Those are details that the detectives don’t need to know in order to make “coherent sense” of my story. The same goes when you’re writing a book.

“Random incidents neither move nor illuminate; we want to know why one thing leads to another and to feel the inevitability of cause and effect,” states Burroway.

How does that affect the plot then, you may ask? That’s right! I have another quote from Burroway (this is starting to sound like a thesis paper) that states “a plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.” Have you ever wondered why a chapter ends with a cliffhanger? What about when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father, but then nothing is resolved until the next movie? Those are examples of the writers arranging things to deliver a more emotional and dramatic impact on their audience.

Look at the film Reservoir Dogs (1992), written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. If you’ve never seen it, the story is about a group of thieves that attempt a jewelry store heist but things go really wrong due to an undercover cop in their midst. The “story” starts with the undercover cop learning to become a thief in order to infiltrate the group, interacting with the group before the heist, the heist going poorly, the escape, the regrouping of the thieves, then the end. The “plot” is totally different. Tarantino starts the film with the regrouping scene after everything goes wrong. Flashbacks are used intermittently to show the audience more information about who could possibly be the undercover cop. You don’t know into much later in the film. It is clever and if you’ve never seen it before it’s a watch if you’re looking to properly utilize how to create an emotional and dramatic buildup.

It looks like it’s my time to leave you all for another week. Next week, I’ll be discussing more elements within “Story and Plot” so be prepared for more Burroway quotes and maybe I’ll let you know whether or not I was officially charged with the murder of English Language. See? I’m using plot to create a cliffhanger.

Spoiler: English Language deserved it. He allowed the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey books to exist. Someone had to act.

At a loss for words…

Right now, I’m laying in a hotel bed typing this column on my iPhone. That’s one of the magical things about writing. Writers are sort of like time travelers. I’m communicating with the future. Originally, I had a column about April being National Poetry Month and why I don’t like writing poetry. I know what you’re going to ask, “But Jim, haiku you say that?”

Well, you’ll never read that column because someone stole my laptop. That’s right, you read that correctly. I don’t like reading or writing poetry. Seriously though, someone stole my laptop. I am literally out of words. Somehow, somewhere, Alanis Morissette is laughing.

The sad thing was that it wasn’t just my things that were taken. I was with my sister’s family in Fort Wayne attending the Christian concert Winter Jam. We got out to our vehicle and that’s when we found that someone had broken in and stole all the ibuprofen and electronics. They even took my sisters broken prescription glasses. I’m not sure if the thieves were being funny by taking the ibuprofen or if they were doing it strictly for drugs. By stealing the laptop and my nieces and nephews tablets, they caused a real headache.

Some of you might be wondering why I’m making jokes at a time like this. Mainly, it’s a defense mechanism of mine that some can find annoying. I understand, but at times like these my humor is all I have. That, and my intense hatred for Michigan.

As a writer, this theft left me staggering and speechless. They stole my livelihood. Everything I had written was on that laptop. That brand new, 15.6 inch Lenovo laptop that I’d worked to save up to buy. It may have only been about $400, but to a writer that’s a lot. A little known fact about writers: we’re not that rich. Worse than that though, they stole my hard work. I’d been editing a book for my publisher, Burning Willow Press, LLC. It was my second book I’ve edited for them. To say that I worked extremely hard to edit this thing would be an understatement. I had promised the Vice President of the company that I’d have that book back, edits completed, by the end of March. I wrote him an email tonight explaining what happened and that I was going to have to break my promise. There would be no way for me to complete the edits have them back by then. Even though I didn’t purposely break my promise, I’m still ashamed to have to tell him that I failed to live up to my word.

But, even worse than that. They stole my ideas. Snatched right from my head. Everything I’ve written is on that laptop. Sure, most of that is backed up on an external hard drive so it’s not gone forever. That doesn’t change the fact that all of my ideas, all of my personal thoughts and creative content is in the hands of another person, a thief. I feel downright violated.

And there isn’t anything I can do about it.

I want to spring into action with a “particular set of skills” and track down the bandits and show them why they should have stayed in Michigan where they belong. I want to quell the sadness I and the rest of my family felt. Also, that insecure feeling of knowing a stranger had rifled through your things. That feeling that your safe, comfortable, secure bubble had just been popped by the sharp prick of a thief’s needle. I can do none of those things, however.

It was my younger nephew that spoke up and said that it was actually a blessing and a test from God. He went on further explaining that we didn’t really need the things that were stolen. The things we really needed were left behind.

Now, let me tell you something. Hearing someone, doesn’t matter the age, tell you that you never really needed that laptop isn’t an easy thing to accept. How can that person know this? They don’t understand that it isn’t just games and files on that laptop. I couldn’t tell you how many evenings I’ve spent hunched over that thing typing out words or editing that book. I wanted to tell my younger nephew that he was wrong, that to me, that laptop was practically my life.

It was at that thought, that laptop was practically my life, that I knew I was wrong and he was right. It was such a selfish thought. Sure, I’ve suffered a setback. Sure, I’ve broken a promise. Sure, I live about an hour south of Michigan. But at least our vehicle wasn’t damaged beyond repair. At least they didn’t take my prescription blood thinners. At least they didn’t steal our clothes.

Here’s the best at least of them all: At least we left the parking lot together and unharmed.

There are worse things than having your laptop stolen. Living in Michigan for example.

My newest book release and following your gift

On Saturday, Feb. 2, my third book is being released by Burning Willow Press, LLC (BWP). They are a phenomenal company that cares about the quality of the books they publish. It can be purchased at a variety of places, but if you search “The Book of Ashley, James Master” on Amazon.com you’ll find it easily. Enough of the shameless promotion though.
I watched a video of Steve Harvey while hiding inside my home during the polar vortex on Wednesday. He talked about how you should follow your gift and not your passion.
“All of you have this gift, identify it. It’s the thing that you do the absolute best with the least amount of effort. That’s what you should be doing. You’re wasting your time pursuing your passion,” Harvey said.
If I’d watch this video a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have understood this message. Up until a few years ago, my passion was playing video games. I’d spend hours playing them, didn’t matter what game it was. Admittedly, I was pretty terrible at esports or other competitive video games. That ruled out playing video games on a professional level. I was terrible at computer programming, ruling out creating video games.
I spent so much time and money trying to follow my passion instead of following my gift. Making the choice to follow my gift, my life has been changed. I have a better paying job, several published works, and an interesting side job with a really great publishing company.
Some of you may be thinking, “but Jim, don’t you work for BWP? Doesn’t that make you biased?” The answer is… sure, maybe a little. For full disclosure, I will state for the record that I am a contracted author for seven books with BWP as well as an editor for them. I also work in the submissions department which typically entails reading submissions and giving my opinion on whether they would be a good fit underneath the BWP umbrella.
Having said all of that, I don’t believe that it would change my view on the publishing company. If anything, this relationship has strengthened my view on BWP. If you ever get a chance to talk with Edd Sowder, VP of the company, you’ll come to the same conclusion I’ve reached. This man loves four things: his wife Kindra (author and BWP President), his company, his coffee, and his authors. You can typically find Edd on the Writer Imperfect Twitch stream that airs Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If you don’t watch Twitch or don’t know what that is, then go to YouTube and search Writer Imperfect with Joshua Robertson.
Enough about Burning Willow Press, LLC though. Let’s talk about my newest release. For those that might be interested, The Book of Ashley is the third book in my series, The Soul Eater Chronicles. The whole series is based around demons, monsters, and the holy crusader that stands against the darkness. When people ask me what kind of genre the series falls in, I typically call it “Religious Horror.” Basically, if you like monsters, demons, and books about good fighting against evil then these books might be for you.
This will be the third book I’ve had published. I’ve also had three short stories that I’ve had published in anthologies. All of them with BWP. Every time I publish something, there’s this triumphant feeling of accomplishment. It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced while playing video games.
I know that last week’s rant might have seemed like I didn’t exactly like my profession. Which is totally the opposite. I do not regret one word that I’ve written in the last five years of being a news writer/author. I am so grateful to be doing what I’m doing for a living. There’s nothing else I could possibly see myself doing. Well, maybe I’d be doing something in the dining service/gas station arena. I sure wouldn’t like it, whatever it would be.
“A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway,” said Junot Diaz, professor of writing and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008.
Even if I was still working in a gas station or as a supervisor of a café at a college, I’d still be a writer. Even if I received rejection after rejection, I’d still be a writer. Even if I had absolutely zero training in the craft, I’d still be a writer. Even if I lived in Michigan, I’d still be a writer (because if I lived there, I’d need something to take my mind off the fact that I lived in Michigan).
Identify your gift and follow it. It doesn’t mean that you must abandon your passion. I still play video games, but I’m not focusing my time on it.

The Legends of Luke Skywalker

The_Legends_of_Luke_Skywalker_final_coverKen Liu writes an interesting anthology of tales that center around the myth of Luke Skywalker. The story is centered around some passengers on a transport barge on its way to Canto Bight. If you’ve seen the film Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) then this destination will be familiar. In fact, it really shouldn’t be a surprise because the book is included in part of the “Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

To pass the time, the passengers tell tales of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. This novel falls between Episode VI and Episode VIII as far as the timeline.

The first thing that I enjoyed about this book is the structure in which it was made. There are six stories about the Jedi Master with interludes in between. Also, the edition I read had fully colored illustrations of the story about to be told that were beautifully drawn by J.G. Jones.

The next thing that I enjoyed about the book was the fact that not all tales about Luke were true. Told by many different characters, the tales of Luke and the Rebellion vary from being saviors of the galaxy to just a bunch of con artists as told in the short story “The Myth Buster.”

If you’re a fan of Star Wars but have never really delved into the cannon/non-cannon books, then this one might be the one to try out. This book is considered cannon, but like I said earlier don’t really count on the legitimacy of what’s being said about Luke Skywalker.

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Just one example of the artwork in this book crafted by Artist J.G. Jones.

Overall, the book is great in terms of writing. Author Ken Liu does an amazing job crafting these stories and making each sound different in terms of the tones of the narrator that’s telling them. My favorite story is at the very end. It’s titled “Big Inside” and is about Luke and the narrator being trapped in the belly of gigantic monster. In order to get out, Luke and the narrator must accept the sacrifice from another trapped group. “Big Inside” contains the most wisdom in the anthology stating that:

“It was one thing to sacrifice yourself for something you believed in, but how much heavier was the burden of accepting someone else’s sacrifice?”

The genius of this concept for a Star Wars book is that since each story is told by different people, nothing can be considered “true” even if Luke did the things that he did in the book. The writing trick of “the unreliable narrator” is used here to make the reader ponder what really happened in each tale.

As far as what I didn’t like about the book, there wasn’t much. If I had to nitpick and find one negative in this book of positives, then I would have to say that one of the stories dragged on and didn’t really capture my attention. “The Tale of Lugubrious Mote” was about the true brains behind the comedic genius in Jabba the Hutt’s palace. That story didn’t quite accelerate until Luke showed up which wasn’t until thirteen pages into the story.

This book can be read by children of all ages. As far as swear words, I didn’t catch any. If you’re looking for a Star Wars book that doesn’t really add to the canon of the films, but does provide some good tales to read then The Legends of Luke Skywalker written by Ken Liu is your book.

If you’re wondering whether or not to purchase the book in hardback or ebook, I would recommend hardback. There is not a book sleeve on it and therefore is just a glossy cover, but the book is extremely durable and has a great feel to it.